Thursday, February 23, 2017

Yuri Docj, Last Folio @ Galerie Karsten Greve

Yuri Docj, Schoolroom, Bardejov, 2006
Disappointed by all of the recommended exhibitions in the Marais galleries, I dropped into Karsten Greve’s storefront space on my way home to see Yuri Dojc’s powerful selection of photographs for Last Folio. Again and again, stories of the displaced, decimated European Jews continue to call out to us. Today, it is not only about remembering the devastation of the Holocaust, an exhibition like Last Folio is a reminder of what people endure, and what they leave behind when the set out to another life. Whether that be fleeing Nazi persecution and promise of annihilation in Slovakia in 1942, or being transported to their deaths in Poland, we cannot even begin to imagine what these people went through. And neither can we imagine the struggle to begin all over again in another land. And that’s why, the story must be told again and again, and again. Yuri Dojc tells these stories from an as yet unexplored perspective.

Yuri Docj, Synagogue (Bardejov), 2007
Dojc’s photographs function on so many levels. The images are introduced as the result of a journey he took through Czechoslovakia following a chance encounter at his father’s funeral with a woman who turned out to be a Holocaust survivor. And so, the photographs we see document a personal journey through his own private past, a journey that leads to a library in which he finds a book belonging to his deceased grandfather. The discovery of this book gives the journey another level, because in the book Dojc finds his own story, his own history as second generation refugee.

Yuri Dojc, Fragment of a Torah scroll, 2015, Pigmenting ink on fine art archival rag paper, 50 x 70 cm, Ed. 1/12, © Yuri Dojc, Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve Cologne/St. Moritz/Paris and Last Folio Project by Yuri Dojc & Katya Krausova
Yuri Dojc, Fragment of a Torah Scroll, 2015
The photographs also tell the story of a lost culture, a culture that is ours as well as those who identify the language falling of the pages of these decaying books in the photographs as theirs. The culture of books that no longer exists in this world of technology and tweets, a world in which reading of physical objects is becoming a thing of the past, we are reminded that the journey is also ours. It is our history as much as that of Jewish life and culture that flies off these pages and disintegrates on these photographed shelves. Many of the books in the photographs are closed, and have obviously been closed for many many years. Inside them are secrets we shall never know, the past that was never passed on because the Nazis decided to brand a whole people on the basis of their irrational fears. It’s true that Docj discovers this history, by chance, on his travels, but the secrets inside the books will never be told. And so it is the history of the books, and the stories of those who owned the books that are also sequestered within these tightly closed pages, between disintegrating covers.

Yuri Dojc, Library shelf, 2007 (Bardejov), Pigmenting ink on fine art archival rag paper, 80 x 120 cm, Ed. 3/8, © Yuri Dojc, Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve Cologne/St. Moritz/Paris and Last Folio Project by Yuri Dojc & Katya Krausova
Yuri Dojc, Library Shelf (Bardejov), 2007
What we see here in Dojc’s images are books. Books that know the difference between life and death, books that speak of absence and the tragedy of human violence, books that remind of what we want to forget, books creating memories that we never had. Books here are held over our heads, they offer a reason to live and to know and to learn. And in their fragility, we can look at the books and feel their fragile material disintegrating between our fingers as we turn the page, even though they can never be touched. Books are landscape, memory, emotional beings, burnt in extreme close up in these vivid photographs. In Docj’s photographs books breath a life into what has never fully died, and they express complex emotions, our emotions, that we feel when we are reminded of those who live inside of them. It’s as though Docj gives these emotions to the viewers of his photographs. And then, at the very same time, just as we think we have understood the story, in Docj’s photographs books become abstract: it is as though abstraction is the only way that their histories that don’t fully make could ever be told.
Yuri Docj, Tefillin Scroll (Bardejov), 2007
In one of the most moving images in the exhibition, we see the documentation of his final stop on his journey around Slovakia with Mrs Vajnorska, the Auschwitz survivor he met at his father’s funeral. In the small town of Bardejov, Dojc discovered a schoolroom, synagogue, and a cemetery, abandoned. In a room layered with dust and decay, everything is still in its place. It was as though the school children had run out of the classroom at the sound of the bell, grabbed their bags and never returned. This was of course, what happened at the end of this devastating tale.

All images copyright the artist

Friday, February 17, 2017

Michelangelo's Moses, Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli

As I wandered around the San Pietro in Vincoli, one of the few churches built by Michelangelo’s benefactor, Pope Julius II, I wondered what the great Renaissance artist would have thought of the current leaders of the free world. Julius was, afterall, a man to inspire fear and rage in all in his midst. And Julius was obsessed with his own self-importance, making most decisions based on the benefits to his ego. A pope who took more than his name from Julius Ceasar could not have been an easy man to work for. But Julius was also a benefactor of the arts. Whether his investments were motivated by an appreciation of culture or an assuredness in the longevity of his own legacy, it seems of little importance today. Irrespective of wrath, his unethical behavior, financial greed and megalomania, at least Julius gave us some extraordinary works of art.
Julius II
For me, Michelangelo’s Moses who sits at the centre of a very reduced version of what was to be Julius’ tomb in the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli, is one of the great wonders of the western world. Like most great artistic treasures on display in Rome, Moses sits safely behind barriers, in the artificial illumination produced by a tourist euro in the meter. At the end of the day, when the tourists are gone home, and the light comes through the window above and behind him, Moses takes on a steely grey clarity, that has his skin sing in the late afternoon sun for which he was made. Julius lies above him, propped up on an elbow. Even though his figure is somewhat contemplative, it’s as though he had a sudden thought and raised himself up from the dead to deliver one final order. Of course, Michelangelo found him inside the marble alive. As was the custom, in death the pope is given eternal life and salvation on his tomb.
A reproduction of
Domenico Zampieri's The Liberation of St Peter, 
which was destroyed in 1944
However we interpret the image of Julius, it’s Moses beneath him that captures every aspect of our beings. Moses is perfect. Many before me have said this, but it’s true. Standing before him it’s impossible not to be seduced by his beard, the extraordinary detail and clarity of his robes, his arms, and the veins on his arms. This is no ordinary sculpture. Made with the same sweeping beauty as the prophets on the Sistine ceiling, the power of David and the tenderness of the Madonna in the Basilica San Pietro, Moses is heavenly and sensual in the same breath. I know everyone says this, but being with Moses in the flesh, it was as though I was the first to wonder that this perfect being could have emerged from a single rough piece of marble.

Angel of Death

Others have claimed that Moses is a self-portrait, the great artist imbued with heavenly perfection in marble. This claim has been dismissed as often as it is asserted. However, it’s true that Michelangelo’s famous figures always reflect the age that he was when he made them. Certainly, Moses could easily be around 40 years, Michelangelo’s age when he came back to Rome to finish the tomb. Given his own self-aggrandizement, and the placement of Moses emanating and reflecting the light of God in the centre of Julius II’s tomb, Michelangelo wouldn’t appear to acquiesce to the Pope’s rule. That is, if we read these details of the tomb as saying anything about the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. And so, while Julius might be protesting his placement on the tier above in relatively diminished form, Michelangelo’s creation lives on as a force in the imagination long after the one who had authority over the land.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Kader Attia, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016 @ Centre Pompidou

Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
The winner of the 2016 Prix Marcel Duchamp, the most prestigious award for a French or living-in-France artist, Kader Attia, is someone to watch. His multi-media installation Reflecting Memory is on display in the newly expanded Gallery 3, together with work by the other three finalists. The French-Algerian Attia's work stands out from the rest for its provocation, empathy and reach between the languages of art, science, history and politics.
Kader Attia, Installation View, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016

At the centre of the installation is a documentary film, Reflecting on Memory (2016) in which doctors, psychotherapists, a prosthesis engineer, cultural workers, an art historian and a range of other people are interviewed. The interviewees are located across continents, from Lithuania to Paris, to Chicago, each relating their experience and encounter with Phantom Limbs. One health worker tells the story of a patient who complained bitterly of acute pain in his big toe. However, she then asks the off-screen interviewer, what can you say to that when the man's leg has been amputated above the knee? The interviewees discuss the presence and reality of physical sensations that are, in fact, memories of lost limbs. Another therapist tells of a patient who was silent, always. He explains that silence causes anxiety for those who live in its midst, and if the trauma is not worked through and healed, it will be passed on to the next generation: silence means that the children must deal with the "phantom limb," which in this case is a traumatic historical experience they themselves never had.

Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
An African-American professor of theatre from Northwestern University talks of the absence of mourning for slavery in a culture in which slavery still exists. Even if it looks different from pre-Civil War slave labor on cotton farms and Sunday lynchings in town, indeed, even if it is not visible, exploitation and victimization is carried within the contemporary African American body and heart as a memory of their people's treatment by institutions and authorities. All of these different "phantom limbs," serve to create connections between people who might otherwise appear to have nothing in common, people who might not understand the burden of others' trauma. Reflecting on Memory demonstrates that as people we are all in this together and our traumas, whether with individuals or carried by a community, are shared.

Kader Attia, Installation View, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016

In one of the most powerful interviews, a strikingly beautiful young man talks about his upbringing in France by an Algerian mother. The man tells of his practice as a choir boy, his baptisim, confirmation and so on, as she insisted on his education within the catholic church. For him there was no arabic spoken as a child, clearly as his mother made sure her trauma was not passed onto her son. However, as we know by this point in the film, it's not that simple. As he goes on to explain, the silence of the past must be unearthed and addressed if healing is to happen.

See original image
Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
Perhaps the most powerful few minutes of the film come at the end—because the film is shown on a loop, the revelations may come at the beginning—when we learn that a number of the interviewees are in fact missing a limb. Though the discussion throughout has been about the use of mirrors for the rehabilitation of pain caused by a phantom limb, it came as a complete surprise to me that the people appear to have both legs or arms thanks only to the use of mirrors. In the end when the mirror is removed, and the figures are shown with missing limbs, of course, we look at them differently. But not in the same way that we would if we had not just spent the past 30 minutes learning of the stigmatization and pain endured by the phantom limb. The film shows these are brave and extraordinary warriors against so much more than their physical ghosts: their absent limbs come to symbolize the injuries of slavery, genocide, terrorism and the collective and individual injuries that befall us all. Thus Attia's film dismisses all notions of difference between "us" and the abstract "them" when it comes to suffering and loss. And for that reason alone, Reflecting on Memory makes a powerful statement in a contemporary political climate that would have us believe the very opposite.  

Images from Réfléchir la Mémoire courtesy Lehmann Maupin, and Galerie Krinzinger. Photo Credit Kader Attia @Adago, Paris 2016. 
Installation View images courtesy Centre Pompidou